Research & Articles by Lt. Col. Peter Winstanley OAM RFD (Retired), JP
Research, Interviews and Articles about the Prisoners Of War of the Japanese who built the Burma to Thailand railway during world war two. Focusing on the doctors and medical staff among the prisoners. Also organised trips to Thailand twice a year.
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22 DENTAL UNIT - VX39668

Lex Milne was born in Swan Hill, Victoria on 15 January 1920.  He was educated at Lake Boga State School and Mildura High School and commenced work in 1937. He worked in the dried fruit industry.

Lex joined the Militia in 1937 in the 7th Battalion.  On 12 February 1941 he enlisted in the AIF at Royal Park, Melbourne, Victoria.  He was enlisted into the 22 Dental Unit with the assistance of a Dental Officer who was in the Bendigo Military Camp.  He spent some time in the Military Camp at Bonegilla, which at the time was the location for 23 Brigade which comprised 2/21,  2/22 and 2/40th Battalions.    In April 1941 those battalions were sent to various locations.  2/22 Bn was sent to Rabaul on the Island of New Britain and 2/21 and 2/40 Bns were sent to the Northern Territory and were initially located respectively at Winelli and Katherine.  Two Dental Units were sent to the Northern Territory and 22 Dental Unit was allotted to 2/40 Battalion as part of Sparrow Force.

 Image of Lex Milne (on left)
Figure 1  Lex Milne on left

On 7/8 December 1941 the Japs, almost simultaneously attacked Pearl Harbour, the Philippines and Northern Malaya/Southern Thailand.  Japan had now declared war and Australia was involved. On 7 December the above Australian troops embarked on two ships -the Zealandia and the Westralia- in Darwin harbour.  Lex was on the Westralia. They were now part of a formation known as Sparrow Force.  The vessels did not leave Darwin until 10 December.
The Force arrived in Timor of 12 December in Koepang Bay at a place known as Usapa Besar.  The landing was not without it's difficulties with the stores and personnel being ferried ashore on barges.  In many cases they waded ashore.  Some minor injuries occurred from cuts from the coral.  Many stores, including wireless sets, were damaged.

The elements of Sparrow Force were deployed to various locations.  22 Dental Unit was initially positioned at Penfui Airfield, but was soon shifted to Tjamplong where the elements of the 2/12 Field Ambulance had established a hospital facility.  The Dental Officer Captain John Winter and his two dental mechanics were there and dental treatment was performed there or in the unit areas.  The Dental unit had a utility and all equipment was portable. Accordingly the Dental Officer and Lex frequently moved to treat patients.

The Japs invaded/attacked Timor on 19 February 1942 and the Allied surrender took place on 23 February 1942.  It is estimated that the invading Japanese force totalled 22,000 and the Allies defending Timor were around 3,000.

During the period in captivity on Timor, from February to September 1942, the Medical and Dental personnel provided whatever support to the POWS that they could, considering their limited resources and facilities.  One of Lex's early jobs was to cleanse and sterilise bandages by boiling them in a kerosene tin.  One early treatment performed by Captain John Winter -Lex's Dental Officer OC- was to treat a POW who had a bullet wound through his mouth with the complication of a shattered jaw bone and many missing teeth.  The patient survived.  They had access to a few ampoules of anaesthetic, which was provided by a Dutch doctor (may have been Captain Henri Hekking, who was captured with his wife and children on Timor).

Many of the men were moved to Java in September 1942 on the Dai Ichi Maru an old rust bucket.  They landed at Sourabaya and were then moved by train to Batavia.  He then spent time in the following camps -Makasura and the Glodock Jail (both in the Batavia area), Cycle Camp, Tandjong Priok and a Camp called Adek.

When they arrived in Java, Captain Winter was appalled at the condition of the teeth of the recently arrived British soldiers.  A treatment area was organised, which involved the use of a Regimental Aid Post (RAP) stretcher in lieu of a dental chair.  A British Medical Officer administered a form of anaesthetic, using an improvised gauze mask on with was sprinkled a small amount of ether.  Captain Winter quickly and efficiently extracted the teeth which were disposed of in a bowl held by Lex.  About 2O British soldiers were lined up for treatment with a full view of the procedures.  Lex thought the British soldiers had a lot of guts, as not one dropped out.

Lex recalled working with an RAF Dental Mechanic at Tandjong Priok.  He also recalls that Captain Winter acquired a vulcaniser, primus, wax plaster from somewhere and some duralium (there were plenty of wrecked aircraft around). Lex and the RAF man made some dentures.  He states the dentures worked well, but after a time, with the absence of toothpaste and toothbrushes and an owner who smoked boong weed they soon looked pretty ghastly.  Lex seemed to become separated from Captain Winter when on Java, but, did assist a Dutch Dentist for a time. 

In May 1944 Lex was shifted to Singapore and was located in River Valley Road Camp.  The POWs travelled as deck cargo on a ship full of scrap iron.  Whilst in Singapore he met up with other POWs some of whom were survivors of vessels torpedoed in the Malacca Straits. He worked on the wharves.

Later in July 1944 Lex was on the move again.  This time, along with others, he was moved to Sumatra. This time the POWs travelled on an old Penang ferry the Elizabeth.  Lex became part of a work force building a railway in the island of Sumatra.  This railway was about half the length of the Burma Thailand Railway, just over 200 km.  The railway was constructed from Pakan Baru, a kampong on the Siak River, to Muara in the west. (This railway is frequently overlooked in the telling of POW experiences and is often referred to as the "Forgotten Railway").  Lex's first job on Sumatra was to build a detour around a patch of swampy jungle between Camps 4 and 5.  Then he had time at camps 6 and 7 where they had to build a branch line to a coal mine.  He then moved to Camp 10 and was nearly at Camp 11 when they met a party building the railway from the western side.  He says the meeting date was ironically 15 August 1945.  In the latter stages of construction the work force numbers diminished due to poor health and the reduction in the amount of food supplied by their captors.  At the end they were working 16 hours days.

Lex Milne was returned to Singapore on 15 September 1945.  His weight was 8 stone 5 lbs, having dropped from 11 stone.  Whilst in Singapore he was reunited with Captain Winter, who came from Java.  In October 1945 he then returned to Australian with many other POWs, including the Australian Nursing Sisters who had been incarcerated elsewhere on Sumatra, on the Manunda.
Lex was discharged from the Army in April 1946. He married a Red Cliffs girl and they had 4 children.  His wife died of cancer at the age of 41.  In 2009 at the age of 89 lives in Red Cliffs, Victoria.

The following are related comments (the bulk supplied by Lex).

  • Captain Rex Ransom VX22694, who had been the OC of the 2/1 Fortress Engineers on Timor, was the only officer from Timor who ended up on the Sumatra Railway.  Lex noted that Ransom put himself back to Sapper and did shifts on the wood team.   He says Ransom was "A good bloke".
  • Staff Sergeant Charlie Snelling VX39665 who was also a member of 22 Dental Unit drowned when the ship he was being transported on was sunk on 18 September 1944. Also on the same ship was Captain (Medical Officer) Max Brown TX2109.
  • Sergeant Pat Bailey was a member of 2/12 Field Ambulance who in Lex's opinion was an outstanding Medical Orderly.   He drowned when a ship he was on was torpedoed off Nagaski in June 1944.

Evan Fuller and Pat Bailey 2-12 Fd Amb

Figure 2 Evan Fuller and Pat Bailey - 2/12 Fd Amb
  • The writer of this article has tried to obtain a definitive map of the Sumatra Railway without any success.  It is understood there were 14 Camps on this railway.

Article written by Lt Col (Retd) Peter Winstanley OAM RFD JP with the assistance of Lex Milne and family members. 

See also the following website

The following poem, which has no detail of the author, is about the Pakan Baru Railway, Sumatra


To the South of Pakan Baru, where the nightly tiger prowls,
And the Simians greet the morning with their ululating howls,
    Through the Kampong Katabula and the district of Kuban
    There runs a single railway- track - monument to man.

In a short and fretful period that was eighteen months of Hell,
Through the tangle of the tropics and the oozing swamps as well'
    Through the cuttings that they hollowed, on embankments that they built,
    They have laid a modern railway-line on jungle trees and silt.

And in spite of tropic noonday and a host of wasting ills,
Ever southward went the railway to Muara and the hills;
    Every sleeper claimed a body - every rail a dozen more -
    'Twas the hand of Fate that marked them as it tallied up the score.

Thirty times a score of prisoners fell asleep upon their backs,
Thirty times a score of prisoners fell asleep beside the tracks;
    Thirty times a score of times the sum of one immortal man,
    Thirty times a score of ciphers in the Councils of Japan.

On their ulcerated shoulders they transported rough-hewn wood,
With a dying desperation carried more than humans should;
    On their suppurating feet with ber-beri swollen tight,
    From the rising of the sun until the welcome fall of night.

From the rising of the sun until the setting of the same,
There was just to grin and bear it and pretend it was a game;
    There was just to laugh and say they'd have a grill when it was done,
    And the cooling breath of ev'ning took the place of scorching sun.

With the cooling breath of even came a leaven of repose,
And a narrow, hard, unyielding bed on which to rest their woes
    Just a width of rotting bedboard for a shrunken, rotten frame,
    Where the bliss of sweet oblivion might eradicate the shame.

Yet the sleep's oblivion tarried long upon its way,
While the bed bugs left their havens for a drying, dying prey;
    And the ants and the mosquitoes and the scorpions and the lice
    Joined the rats and noisy chickchaks and the jungle's lesser mice.

So another day was over, and another day was done;
So another day of misery was all too son begun,
    But the mighty Tenno Haiko and the power of Japan,
    Can't recall a day that's done with - and Thank God, there's no-one can.

    "Show a leg, my sleeping hearties! Oh, get up and rise and shine
For the sky is blue and cloudless!" - they feared it would be fine!
    There was breakfast for the hungry, if their stomachs weren't too sour,
    Made of boiling swampy water of the tapioca flour.

Back in England, paperhangers would refuse to use the mess;
But Japan must give them something - and it couldn't give them less.
    So they thought of those who loved them; and with far, unseeing eyes
    They consumed their mess of pottage - and the maggots and the flies.

There was someone trusting somewhere that a husband would return;
There were sweethearts praying softly; there were candle-lights aburn;
    There was God up in His Heaven and He knew about it all'
    And He heard their falt'ring whispers and He listened to their call.

And they drew their strength from somewhere and they battled for their life,
Though the odds were overweighted in this too-unequal strife;
    But they kept on carrying sleepers; and they struggled with the rail,
    And they still persisted, hopeful, when it seemed of no avail.

It was "Kura" and "Canero" - if you straighten up, you shirk -
And the one excuse for living is a job of finished work.
    'Twas the "mercy" of the Emperor that saved them from the gun:
    There was nothing now to save them from the task they had begun.

There was nothing then to save them from the toiling and the sweat,
But the saving grace of illness that was more exacting yet.
    So they welcomed their malaria with its vomit and its ache,
    So they welcomed their malaria for its semi-torpor's sake.

There were dysentery, pellagra and a host of sister ills,
Beri-beri and bush typhus, but no medicines or pills.
    There was every cause for dying and but few for hanging on
    When so many fell asleep and followed comrades who had gone.

It was: Tie them in a hurry in an old discarded sack,
With a plank of rough-cut timber to support them in the back.
    It was: Lower them as gently as a withered muscle may,
    And commend them to their Maker and remain a while to pray.

But for those they left behind them there were brutish things to bear
At the hands of brutish beings, who were only well aware
    Of the primitive upsurging of an animal delight
    That enjoyed the thrills of torture and the quiverings of fright.

  They could drag their aching bodies to their grass and timber huts;
They could rub the salt of impotence in open weals and cuts;
    They could steel their will to conquer, to forget, perhaps forgive,
    But they found it mighty difficult to force themselves to live.

They had open huts of atap loosely tied to wooden poles,
And the roof and partitions gaped and yawned in rotting holes:
    Either side were filthy bed boards but a yard above the ground
    With a floor of earth and water and with refuse all around.

And to rest their weary bodies, overworked and underfed,
Sixty centis of this planking was their homestead and their bed;
    Sixty centis night and morning, sixty centis well or ill,
    Sixty centis for each body, and it had to fill the bill.

Many talked of playing cricket; many said they'd played the game;
But they let the devil rider take the honest and the lame;
    There are many will be tongue-tied when the trump of doom is burst
    On the ears of waiting sleepers, on the blessed and the cursed

On the twenty-ninth of April there was nothing to be done:
On the birthday of the Emperor they rose to greet the sun;
    And His Clemency Imperial made a fatherly decree
    That the slaves might send a post-card to their wives across the sea.

When the Day at last arrived and when the rest of them were free,
They devised a Union Jack, and displayed it on a tree.
    And they thanked the God who made them that He let them live again,
    And they prayed they might be better for the suffering and pain.

There they left their friends behind them - thirty times a score and more,
Left them sleeping in a shadows on a distant tropic shore.
    And I pray that God Almighty, in the evening of their lives,
    Will be gentle to their parents and their children and there wives.

Pakan Baru      SUMATRA, 1944

Notes -

  • The author is unkown.
  • "Thirty times a score" has a special significance
  • Sixty centis = 60 Centimetres = 6 Decimeters

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